Thursday, February 28, 2013

Two things I needed, today

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"Hope is the thing with feathers ..." 

Can you see the crows perched in the branches of the trees, above, so thick they almost look like black leaves? Less hopeful, perhaps, than ominous, but extremely compelling. We stood and watched them for ages last night. (Click on the photo to see in full.)

*

Two things I needed, this morning:

1. I needed sleep. And sleep was received, sound and deep, all through the night. I chose not to set my alarm and wake early.

2. I also needed this (though I didn't know it): a hand-delivered card from the book club I visited on Monday evening. "Fortune befriends the bold" - Emily Dickinson, is printed on the front of the card. I opened it and read the handwritten message inside and sat on the floor and almost cried. It's the little things, isn't it. The small gestures that go such a long way toward giving a person that necessary spark. I needed a little spark this morning, as I slog through the manuscript one last time, and hope for the best.

"We were grateful for the opportunity to hear you read; to hear how stories are born in the writer's imagination; and then, the hard work needed to share that creation with the reader.

"We joked about becoming your fan club, but, in fact, a book club is a fan club of sorts. We celebrate words on the page and we appreciate the courageous few who choose writing as their life work.

"How fortunate we are for your willingness to share your gift with us."

Thanks to all the book clubs who have bravely and warmly welcomed this writer in. You may not know it, but I consider it a gift, too, to be able to share what I've got.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My office, with dogs

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in my office

Picture me here. That's my eldest daughter, working on a project this weekend, with the dogs in attendance. The dogs are generally in attendance when I'm in my office. If the kids are around, too, I often discover that the greater population of the house is lounging in my office while I'm trying to work. The floor is warm. It's cozy. It's a great place to nap, and to read.

And to write.

Which is what I'm doing today, on a shortened work day, after a sick weekend (I've returned to health!), and so I will say little else, even though multiple blog topics are bubbling in my head. I'm afroth with things I'd like to opine about! But work calls. I'm tightening the draft. It's tedious.

I'm glad the dogs are here too.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The need to sleep

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Maybe my body is trying to tell me something.

Maybe my horoscope on Thursday was right (it said I was doing too much and needed to slow down).

Maybe one cannot hold a pose of strength all the time.

After a solid writing day on Thursday, and an evening of driving children around to swimming and soccer, I returned home realizing that I felt ... not quite right. In fact, a good deal worse than not quite right. In fact, I felt quite terrible enough that I needed to climb into bed without bothering to eat supper.

A few hours later, the youngest woke up with the unmistakable symptoms of stomach flu. I will spare you the details. I realized that I, too, was so queasy I was having difficulty sleeping. By yesterday morning I was basically prone, laid out flat. I didn't even resent missing a writing day due to looking after a sick kid because all I wanted to do was sleep. He watched movies, I slept, piled upon by concerned dogs.

By afternoon, when sick kid was feeling improved and I discovered myself lying under a blanket on my office floor (it's very warm) unable to respond to his demands for his water bottle, I texted my mother an SOS. She arrived and stayed until Kevin was home with the soccer/skating children at around 8pm. I slept and slept and slept. And then I slept all night too.

I'm a little less prone today. In fact, I am sitting at my office desk. Yay! Yesterday I was pretty sure I was dying, but today I'm feeling more optimistic about survival. (Yes, I am a hypochondriac; no, I would not make a good invalid.)

Rest, rest, rest.

Can I manage it? Seems an easy demand to meet, especially given that it's the weekend, Kevin's home, today is quiet.

Rest, rest, rest.

I'll try, body. I'll try.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A minor breakdown

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So much on my mind today. I couldn't shut it down, not even in yoga class this morning. The word I used to meditate as I held poses was "strength." I want to be strong. I think I am strong. But sometimes I wonder, at what point does "strength" become "unwillingness to appear weak"? Is it better to grit through a difficult pose, or to give in to the desire to rest? Maybe sometimes it's one, sometimes the other. I heavily favour the former, of course.

I do believe, however, that our greatest strengths are also our points of greatest frailty. So I have to be careful.

Let me tell you about yesterday. It was a pretty crappy day, if I may be frank. Writing time vanished as I had to take one daughter to a doctor's appointment. Vanished some more due to errands and piano lessons. And then the truck slowly but surely started breaking down. Right in the middle of the fairly complicated back-and-forthing between school, piano lessons, school, birthday party. Three kids were directly counting on me to be in specific locations at specific times.

The truck refused to shift into reverse.

I was lucky. I realized what was happening. I'd parked on an incline and was able to roll out of the parking lot. I was able to call Kevin right away. He was able to book a carshare car right away. I was able to park at the next location in such a way that would prevent me from needing to reverse. And the next. And the next. And we were able to make it to the repair shop before the entire transmission shut down.

I never realized how frequently I use reverse, when driving. Maybe this is a life metaphor. We're not meant to be stuck going forward at all times. We need to be able to back up, too.

The situation was stressful. I was worried the whole time and couldn't find my "happy place," shall we say. But I recognized, too, that the day was not nearly so crappy as it could have been. Kevin and I worked together as a team. We were only about ten minutes late for the second piano lesson. The truck did not need to be towed. The children adapted to the changing plans. We belong to a carshare!

Home at last, I felt so tired -- not physically, but mentally. Fooey wanted to play an imagination game while I was hanging laundry. It was all I could do to manage the most banal responses.

It also happened that I was due to Skype in to a book club in Toronto at 9pm. Well. I made a pot of peppermint tea, brushed my hair, and sat down in my office. We made contact. But we couldn't work the video. In the end, we decided just to chat. I looked at my own video smiling back at me (not sure whether they did the same), and we spoke for about forty-five minutes. My tiredness evaporated. Their questions were thoughtful, respectful, insightful. We talked about how daughters view their mothers. We talked about being mothers. We wondered, will mothers ever get cut some slack?

I hung up feeling so much better.

I don't know what's going to happen with the truck. The two eldest kids wonder: would this be a good time to become a car-free family? "I've been thinking about it, Mom, and it would make us be more eco-friendly and more organized...." I'm proud of the values we've instilled in them, but, oh, I like having that truck waiting for me on freezing dark mornings when I'm headed for a spin class.

I don't know what's going to happen with the book. The editing is so slow. One foot in front of the other. One small step and another and another. Many, if not most, of my writing days are shortened by other necessities that take priority.

I don't know what's going to happen with my applications for writing grants and midwifery and The Amazing Race (thanks for watching the video: we've had tons of excellent feedback already!).

I feel as if so much of my life is up in the air right now. Strength. I'm calling on strength as I hold this pose.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Side project: Amazing Race Canada audition

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Tricia and I goof around in front of my camera while our children entertain themselves nearby (click on photo to see in full)

We did it! My friend Tricia Orchard and I sent in our application to the Amazing Race Canada. Making the video was a truly fascinating experience, and perhaps a tiny taste of what being filmed for a tv reality program would actually feel like. Tiny taste. Tiny. I'm pinching my fingers together to show you. But nevertheless, it was a real taste, and did not, apparently, scare me off.

Click here to see our audition video.

We had the help of our friend and neighbour, Stephen Edgar, who happens to be a professional videographer/photographer, and my brother Karl provided the addictive background beats (they really stick in your head.)

We spent a couple of hours one afternoon splashing through a muddy swamp, running up a grassy hill over and over again, and dashing around a forest obstacle course; the weather that day was unseasonably warm for January. Which contrasted nicely with a shoot we did more recently, in fact on one of the coldest days of the year so far, when we repeatedly ran down a big hill in a farmer's field just outside of town -- it looks like we're running the tundra. We also met for a shoot at Tricia's house, which Steve had transformed into a miniature studio for the afternoon. There, we got a sense of what it would be like to be interviewed at length.

We got some head shots and team shots too.

The most excellent part is that all the way along, I could completely imagine Tricia and me competing together as a team, no matter the scenario. I think we'll be laughing a lot. We're both good sports. We both show up and do what needs doing without complaint. And we know our limits too.

I've never had a huge desire to be on television, but I've loved watching the Amazing Race with my kids, and Kevin and I have had fun over the years imagining ourselves trying to navigate the race as a team -- and no, he wasn't offended that I went with someone else, when the opportunity presented itself. I love to compete, but I'm also, by nature, curious. I want to know: not just where would we go and what strange tasks would we have to perform, but could I still be myself -- recognizably myself; my better self -- in this situation? Of course I hope so. But the discovery is in the doing.

I can't decide whether this audition is in character, for me, or a bit of a departure. Is life about being consistent? I remember one of my favourite professors saying to me, "Don't get predictable, Carrie." (She probably doesn't remember that. But it's really stuck with me over the years.)

In some ways, this is the year of the application form. I fill in the blanks. I do my best. I cross my fingers. It means a lot of hoping, and waiting, to see which possibilities open for me -- and in this case, for us, Team Snorchard. Yeah, our names don't mash up all that well. Thanks for our friend Zoe for this suggestion; I think it just might stick. Yikes. Go Team Snorchard!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dogs sledding

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Just what it sounds like. We took the dogs sledding!

It's "Family Day" holiday here in Ontario, so we're hanging around doing things together as a family, as dictated by our children. I've actually spent most of the day in the kitchen, making a ridiculous list of homemade items, which I shall share with you now, so as to make me feel like I've accomplished something. Okay, I'm a little bit grumpy. I just spent most of the day in the kitchen!

Four loaves of bread. Yogurt. Turnip & beet pickles. Pulled barbequed beef in the crockpot. Homemade buns on which to serve pulled bbqued beef.

I guess that's all. These holidays always throw me off. Truth is, I feel like I'm holiday when the kids are at school and I'm getting to write all day! So I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mugging for the camera

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I hope you recognized the tongue-in-cheek nature of yesterday's "I finished my book!" post. There is a never-really-done-ness to book-writing, and that's what I wanted to get at. So I'm done, yes, in that this book now has a lovely completed first draft with all parts in place. But I'm not done, no, in that the book is not even at the show-it-to-my-agent stage. If there's one thing book-writing does not equal it's instant gratification. It's a slow burn form of exertion. It's made for the marathoning spirit.

I've got big goals for this year.

Hugely ambitious goals. Probably far too ambitious. But I'm pleased with progress so far.

*

Goal for today: open Mama's Salon.

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hair cut in progress

I've been trying to convince her to keep her hair long. So pretty in braids! Pony-tails! But no. She wanted it cut to just below her ears. I didn't quite go that short. We don't have adequate after-pictures yet because the hair is still wet from her post-cut shower. It's still long enough for a tiny, stubby pony-tail.

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before

It was this fellow who really needed a hair cut.

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also before

He wanted to be sure I recorded his true feelings on the subject: grumpy. But I don't think he minded all that much. The after photos were pure ham. I don't know what this kid is going to do with his talent for physical humour, but it's going to be good.

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"Get my 'cool guy' pose, Mama!" (above)
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(I also realize it's time to clean my camera's lens.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

"I finished my book!"

dog love
dog love

Achievement yesterday: wrote all planned scenes in new book.
(Child: "Did you write THE END?" Me: "No, I don't usually put that in." Child: "You should!")
Word total: 83,759.
I note this high water mark only to forget it.

Reality check today: back to the beginning, baby.
From here on in, word count is expected to reverse as I tighten, slash and burn, and sacrifice all of my favourite (aka: indulgent) sentences, paragraphs, and yes, even entire scenes.

Now it gets gritty.

When the kids arrived home from school yesterday, I said, "I finished my book!"

Cool. What's for snack?

"Now I need to polish it. Then I'll send it to my agent. She might want me to make some changes. I'll make those changes. Then I'll send it back to my agent. Maybe she'll think it's ready to go to the publisher. Maybe the publisher will like it. Or maybe they'll want me to make some changes before offering me a contract. Then I'll make more changes. Then maybe they'll want me to sign a contract. Then I'll start working with an editor. Then I'll make a bunch more changes ..." [note: children no longer listening]

Well. That kind of takes the fun out of celebrating a milestone, doesn't it!

I should have poured myself a glass of wine instead.

But I had a lot of driving to do last night: older girl to swim practice followed by younger girl to soccer skills (sudden snow squall + commuter traffic = extra-long drive and extra-special driving swear words); home to shovel down supper; back to pick up swim girl, feed her en route, drop her at soccer practice; pick up younger girl and a friend, listen to amusing conversations between daughter and friend ("Watch out -- my mom says bad words sometimes when she's driving! Today she said, mm-hmm mm-hmmm!" [no translation, thankfully] "That's okay. My mom and dad do that sometimes too."); send Kevin out for final pickup while putting little kids to bed.

So I didn't celebrate with a glass of wine.

Instead, after all was said and done, I left the dishes, and sipped a cup of tea, made with mint leaves harvested from our own backyard, and sat on the couch with Kevin and the dogs. It was Kevin's Valentine's wish for us. Isn't he the best?

Today, I renew my commitment to this book.

The Girl Runner!

Long may she run. And may I have the grit, energy, and determination to bring her story into book-shaped form.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Going for broke

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New words written yesterday: 1,293.
Words in book, total: 83,139.
New scenes written: 2.
New scenes written that I hadn't planned on writing: 1.
Scene left painfully half-done due to the call of parenting (and piano lessons): 1.

Emotions: high.

*

A reader left a comment on yesterday's post sending me joy, which had been her meditation word for the day. First let me say that I love the concept of a meditation word. I tried it out at yoga this morning. The instructor suggested "love," (it is Valentine's Day), but I kept coming back to joy.

When I lay down for my morning nap, I wanted to say thank you, though I don't know exactly why, to my great-grandparents, only one of whom was still alive when I was born -- my great-grandma Ida, from whom I inherited my red hair. She passed away in the month following my birth, but I'm told she held me in her arms and acknowledged the arrival of another red-headed relation.

So as I drifted into sleep, I thought of each of these eight blood ancestors by name, men and women who gave me the genetic code that is uniquely mine. I am older by five years than two of them got to be, though others were long-lived. I thought particularly of my namesake, Carrie Anne, who died in her early 30s. I thought of the difference between my life and hers. I thought of the freedoms that I have had in comparison to the strictures of her life. I wonder if by expressing joy in the life I am given, I am thanking my ancestors for the unknown gifts and sacrifices their own lives contained.

A friend and I were discussing sacrifice yesterday. I said that I don't believe in sacrificing myself -- martyring myself -- although I know that circumstances don't always allow us to choose. But if we have the choice, I think it does nobody any good to behave in ways that are sacrificial. I don't mean that we should never give of ourselves, not at all. Looking in at those early years with my children, one could imagine a great deal of sacrifice going on -- all that breastfeeding, those interrupted nights, those days spent walking blearily around the block. But that was no sacrifice. I chose it, and I loved it, and I received in return so much from it. I was not diminished or depleted by giving of myself.

And so I ask:
Are you doing things that you don't enjoy?
Can you find ways to enjoy them?
If not, can you change what you are doing?
If not, can you ask for help? Can you find someone to talk to? Can you change one small habit and see what ripple effect it may have?

*

Goal for today: 1,000 words.
Finish half-done scene and explore changing location of final scene.

Smile ... and GO!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Just the stats

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my office: picture me behind that window

Words written yesterday: 2,421.
(includes 674 words written last night after I should have been in bed)
Word total for book: 81,861.

Happy dances: 0.
High fives: 0.
Early morning run with friend: 1.

Scenes left to write: 3.
Scenes left to rewrite: 3.

Piano lessons to ferry children to: 2.
Swim practice to ferry child to: 1.
Soccer practice involving husband and son: 1.

Supper plan: ?
a) noodle soup
b) hummus with ?
c) pasta with red sauce

Emotions: clouded.

Because: I've been here before, on the precipice of done.
Because: I know that done does not equal done.
And yet: I've brought this book this far.
That's something.

I honour the effort.

Word goal for today: 1000.

And ... GO!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Truth, Dare, Doubledare: Woot!

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science presentation, in progress

*

News to report: I have an essay in the just-announced anthology, Truth, Dare, Doubledare: Stories of Motherhood, a book conceived, curated, and edited by Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This, one of my favourite Canadian book blogs. Read more about the deal here. Other contributers include Heather Birrell, Alison Pick, Zoe Whittall, Marita Dachsel, and my friend Deanna McFadden, whom I first met at the University of Toronto in a grad class called Restoration Women Writing. (Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure we took another class together called Victorian Women Reading, which seems oddly symmetrical).

This anthology is going to be an excellent collection of work, guaranteed. I just can't wait to read it myself. I also suspect the launch party will be memorable.

Now the bad news: The pub date is Spring, 2014, so we'll all have to be patient until then.

*

Somehow I lost an hour off of my work day, and I'm not sure where it went. Vanished. I was supposed to be sitting down at my desk at 10am, and it's very nearly 11. I did drive a large posterboard (pictured above) up to the school for the boy who has a science presentation today (yes, I drove the posterboard, not the child). That took up about 14 minutes. There was a load of laundry. The dogs kept wanting to go in and out of the back yard. But I'm pretty sure the time-sucker was email.

Messages replied to this morning: 12.

Book clubs I will be visiting in the next two weeks: 3.

Social outings I attended yesterday: 2.
involving coffee: 1
involving beer: 1

Words written in new book yesterday: 388.
goal for today: 1000.
which would bring the total word count to: 80,000.

*

And .... GO!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The vague urge to slow down

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Woke up yesterday to this: silvery wonderland, trees covered in what I remember being called hoar-frost. I walked the dogs, then came home for the camera. By noon, or sooner, the long white shards had melted off the branches.

*

I had the urge to slow down this weekend. It didn't happen, but I wondered whether I might find a way to shift my habits and routines, even just a little bit, in order to allow myself to alight in the moment, and rest. I alight in many moments. It's the rest part I can't seem to locate. I parented alone all weekend and sprinted from task to task, from must-do to must-do. At one point yesterday, I realized that I was using precious adrenalin to whisk bread dough into greased pans before racing out the door to soccer -- it struck me as oddly wrong. The slow preparation of bread, the two long rises, the "simplicity" and genuine goodness of homemade set against my relentless schedule -- shoe-horned into my relentless schedule. What is the cost of operating at such high levels of intensity? Is it my health? I definitely feel like I'm aging more rapidly or visibly these days -- rogue white hairs squiggling out of my scalp, facial wrinkles deepening.

I laid the bread into the pans and forced myself to breathe deeply.

But, oh, worth it. That's why I can't seem to stop. Homemade bread. And a really fun soccer game.

Last night, before bed, I applied a face-mask of yogurt and grains: maybe the sloughing of a little dead skin will help with the rapid/visible aging problem; maybe not. Still, I took the time.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Snow day in Canada

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Yup. It's a real snow day, school cancelled, library cancelled, extra-curricular activities cancelled, children playing in snow drifts, people walking by in the street because the sidewalks are too messy, snow, snow, snow coming down, down, down.

I'm happy for the kids, who were praying for a snow day, but oh how I really wanted to keep on writing in my new book. Yesterday's hair-pulling session netted me 1800 new words, bringing the book to 78,000 words, and three new scenes. (Scrivener has handy "project targets" and "project statistics" features to which I am utterly addicted. I do realize that stats mean nothing if those 78,000 words do not work together to move the reader. But it's comforting to quantify my efforts.) I have about four new scenes to write, plus another six or seven to revise before this draft is complete. I'm not looking for new material, I just need the time/space to write what has already been plotted out in my head. Unfortunately, my current situation is not conducive to scene-writing: two children and two dogs crowded into my office, dogs to sleep, and children to chew gum, sit in dog beds, listen to songs, and generally disrupt the quiet every two seconds with requests, wonderings, and commentary. The smallest is at this very moment stamping his feet for some perceived wrong I'm not entirely clear about. Maybe it's the typing I'm doing on this here computer.

So ... here's what I plan to do with the rest of our snow day.
* bake cookies
* make yogurt
* make dough for homemade pizza
* shovel the sidewalk since I won't be running tonight (no soccer skills means that my regularly scheduled Friday run, which I do no matter the weather, is also cancelled)
* pull smallest on sled while we walk second smallest to play date
* put in movie for part of the afternoon and sneak in some writing

For the purposes of reality checking, here's what I've actually accomplished so far.
* chatted with sister-in-law on the phone
* almost finished one cup of coffee (gone cold ages ago)
* fed everyone breakfast, and a few people lunch
* tried to talk husband out of leaving for his boys' cottage weekend in the middle of this storm (doesn't seem to be working)
* put in load of laundry
* cleaned up dog poop in upstairs bedroom (c'mon, DJ, if Suzi can go outside, you can go outside!)
* read front section of newspaper
* answered a few work-related emails
* took photographs of snow
* puttered. Really, mostly I've puttered.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Measuring the weight of a day

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celebrating a birthday

Sometimes it's best to measure a day's success by values other than productivity. Sometimes, rather than thinking about what I've accomplished, I notice: I've connected with friends and family today.

I appreciate that on most mornings, when I get up early, I'm meeting a friend. A surprising amount of ground can get covered during this sleepy, short time together.

I appreciate the drives to and from swimming and soccer and piano. I especially love finding myself one-on-one with a child. We don't have to talk about anything big or exciting. We're just happy to be together. There's a sense of purpose as we head toward our destination, but there's no sense of hurry.

I appreciate saying yes to crazy projects/events with friends. Yesterday morning, I was running through a snow-covered farmer's field with a friend. Yesterday evening, I was eating smores beside a campfire under a dark and starry sky. In between, I had lunch with a friend, ferried children to piano lessons, ran fast at an indoor track, hung laundry, washed dishes. I also got zero new writing done. How to measure yesterday's weight and meaning and worth?

On Tuesday night, instead of reading in bed, I stayed up to listen to my eleven-year-old enthuse about a school project (who knew he could be enthusiastic about school?).

Sometimes I text a friend (or my sister) whom I miss, but don't have time to meet face-to-face. These disjointed abbreviated back-and-forths feel oddly conversational, like we've been with each other during that time.

I am often rushing from task to task, moment to moment, place to place. But in between, sometimes even amidst the rushing, I recognize that I feel quiet, stilled, present, at ease. I feel connected, strongly, to the ones I love. I feel solidly, persistently myself.

I'm not necessarily being productive by worldly measures. I'm not making anything. I'm not earning anything. I'm not going anywhere. I have nothing visible to show for my day's labours. So it might be asked, why bother throwing yourself in deep, whole-heartedly, if there is no apparent goal being forwarded or accomplished?

Ah, but you know exactly why, I'm sure: because. Just because. This is life.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Cleaning out the cupboards

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February, out our window

Update on eating down the cupboards: Made hummus! Used up two mostly empty jars of tahini! Now we only have two jars of tahini left! (This emptying the cupboard project is revealing certain inefficiencies in our shopping/storage system.)

Also, and basically unrelated, I made yogurt on the weekend. It had been awhile. I got discouraged after making a batch that scorched and stopped for a year or so. But it's easy! And we're eating lots of yogurt again, due to my renewed breakfast mandate: no cold cereal. Somehow, somewhere along the line this fall, we got into the habit of having boxed cereal around for snacks, and from there we slipped into kids eating boxed cereal for breakfast, too. (In our family, cold cereal has traditionally been considered a junk-food-type treat, bought only on occasion.)

The complaints regarding this change were loud, but brief.

February's Every Day Breakfast Menu:
* yogurt with pearsauce and bananas (chia seeds optional)
* eggs made to order with toast (homemade bread)
* toast with peanut butter and jam
* porridge (not instant)

::

I met with my word-of-the-year friends last night. We are planning to meet more often throughout this year for reflection. I came away from our conversation with the renewed intention to be in the world without judgement. To quiet my critical inner voice, whether the criticism be negative or positive, and simply to be present.

This is not necessarily the easiest task for a writer. But I do think there are ways to be attentive to the world without setting myself apart from it, or above it, or wishing I could alter it.

On "stretch," my word of the year, I realized last night that I'd already lost track of my intended usage of the word, which was to take time to stretch -- to become more flexible by slowing down. Taken literally, I am indeed doing yoga once a week and stretching after running and spin; it's the metaphorical stretching that confounds me. Instead of stretching, I find myself stretched, a bit, and wondering: do I say yes more often than I should? I love yes. I love exploring possibilities. I love remaining open to experiences.

Therefore, I stretch myself to be many things all at once. Question asked by friend: Will you stretch until you break?

Answer: I hope I won't break. And yes.

::

Lost-and-found, the neverending story:

* one red mitten: lost
Child climbs off of school bus. "Where is your mitten?" "Can't find it!" "When did you lose it? Could it be on the bus?" "No, not on the bus." "Did you lose it at school?" "Yeah." "Did you have to go all day without a mitten?" "Yeah." "Was your hand cold at recess?" [Shrug] "You can wear my mitten." [Tries mitten, takes it off] "Too big. I can go like this!" [Covers exposed hand with mittened hand, chats cheerfully all the way home]

* one black Celtic hat: found!
In Kevin's hat bin. Pink mittens still missing.

* one grey hat with ear flaps: found!
Found before we even realized it was missing (well, AppleApple knew, she just didn't want to mention it, considering how many of her personal belongings go missing; I don't blame her, really). Hat was left at soccer field, and kind observant parent (not me or Kev) recognized it. Now we just have to pick it up.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Just another merry Monday

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shovelling with dogs, Monday morning, early

Slow start. Hi there, Monday. Why you be so Mondayish week after week?

::

I'm thinking of starting a regular lost-and-found feature. The latest on the list:

* one Playbook, lost and then miraculously found at the bottom of my sports bag where it had rested patiently since last Sunday's soccer game, going to and from exercise studios

* one black Celtic hat and pair of pink mittens: CJ's, last seen Friday, or maybe yesterday, who can remember? This lost hat & mitt combo represented this morning's final crisis before leaving the house, late, to catch the bus.

::

It felt like a weekend of non-stop-ness. Maybe that's why I'm having such a hard time getting going this morning. Even the fun parts were relentlessly timed. For example, coffee date with son. (These coffee dates/errand running, with each child getting a turn, have become regular Saturday morning events.) Thankfully he did not complain about having to eat his onion bagel with garlic & herb cream cheese in eight minutes flat.

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The turn-around time was terribly tight: I was off to a swim meet in Brantford with the swim girl. There is something very similar about all of these pools, and the meets too. Noisy music; insanely tight seating (this time on deck); a dad seated directly behind you with a bullhorn of a voice hollering at his kid in the pool who clearly will never be able to hear or follow the directions being given; technical glitches with the scoreboards; expensive race sheets that you have to buy or you won't know when your kid is racing; searching endlessly trying to locate your child's cap, goggles, and suit amidst the multitudes of other similarly clad children; sitting for butt-numbing hours on end; child races, heart rate accelerates, sitting again; boggled by the limited supply of bathrooms in these facilities; wishing you'd brought a better snack; trying to read/work while keeping an eye on the race progression; chatting with neighbouring parents; waiting endlessly for swim kid to locate lost items at the end of the day (this meet it was a GIGANTIC copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales that took us half an hour to find in the littered stands, no exaggeration.)

Watching your kid swim two fantastic personal bests in races that amount to a total of just over 2 minutes. Seeing her take deep pleasure in the reward of her hard work. Marvelling at her race-intensity. Being proud. Figuring it's all kind of worth it.

*

Also this weekend: babysitting exchange at our house. Eight kids plus two dogs overnight. Kevin was in charge of food, and he really outdid himself. Two casseroles of homemade mac-and-cheese, a graham cracker-chocolate-cookie-cake that had everyone rushing for seconds, and a triple batch of pancakes and sausages for breakfast. "I love having kids around to cook for," he sighed with satisfaction, to which I said, "Wha???? Don't we always have kids around to cook for?" Apparently cooking for other people's kids is more fun than cooking for one's own brood.

*

Add in two giggling girls awake at 5:50am, a swim practice, a sledding miscommunication, two soccer games (no subs and a tie for me, two goals and a win for her), a carshare car, and a Super Bowl supper, and we were done. We were toast. We were ready for bed early. And the alarm sounded early. And it was Monday. It is Monday.

Deadline to meet tomorrow. Must. Get. Writing. Not. Blogging.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reading List, 2013, on ongoing project

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I don't keep track of the books I read, so this year I would like to. Maybe I'm reading less than I think, maybe more, who knows? Do I read mainly fiction, non-fiction, across the spectrum? More women writers than men, or perhaps not? I also find it interesting, as a writer, to think about why I've chosen the book I'm reading: was it recommended by a friend, did I stumble across it at a bookstore, did I read a particularly compelling review, was it written by a friend or acquaintance? Also interesting to me as a writer is: where did I get the copy of the book? E-book? Library? Bought? Borrowed?

If I feel inspired, I will note something about the book itself, or the reading experience.

I am posting this today, so it's obviously incomplete (I'm starting it on February 3). I will be updating the list regularly. There will be a link to this page on the RH side of the blog, and I may remind you from time to time to check back.

I've also decided to arrange this in blog-fashion, from end to beginning, with the current month shown first.

December

That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter
* bought used through Abebooks after discovering the trilogy is out of print and our library doesn't carry it
I guess this will be the last book finished in 2013. All four kids have been listening to this one. I remember it from childhood and it's oddly applicable to the book I'm writing, as its setting is early-1930s Depression-era Toronto. The writing itself is patchy, and there are lots of out-of-date phrases to confuse everyone, but the stories are entertaining and stuffed with now-obsolete and forgotten details of life as it was. The story is based on the author's own childhood. With the father unable to find work, the family goes hungry, parents fight, the bailiff tosses them out of several houses, and Aunt Aggie sends them a Christmas chicken in the mail. We may read the next two books in the trilogy, although AppleApple, who has already read them, warns that it gets into older themes and that she really didn't like the boyfriend who Bea ends up marrying. And now -- onward to a new year!

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver
* bought at Words Worth earlier this year
Really loved this book, loved diving in, sinking in, loved the juicy messiness of Kingsolver's expansive style. A bit preachy in parts, but Dellarobia is a wonderful character, as messy and big-hearted as the book itself.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
* from our shelves
This is the book we chose to go with after finishing the Little House series. It's my second time reading it aloud to the kids (the younger ones had never heard it, however). I found the language at times archaic and peculiarly English is phrasing, and we didn't like that girls aren't supposed to fight in battles, and I sometimes had Mrs. Beaver say things that Mr. Beaver really said, just to make Mrs. Beaver sound less domestic and more interesting. I also wasn't sure about the White Witch, who didn't seem very powerful, ever. And I was troubled that some of the evil things that were on her side were described as being deformed, which seemed an unfair elevation of physical perfection/attractiveness over the ugly and unloved beings. Plus I was sad when the wolf was killed. I guess I'm not much drawn to battles between good and evil. But the kids enjoyed it very much. We won't read the rest of the series, however. They can gravitate to it on their own when they're older, if they wish.

Hell Going, by Lynn Coady
* bought on my Kobo on impulse a few months ago, before it won the Giller
I loved this collection of stories. I'll admit that I wasn't sure about recommending it to my mother, but maybe that's not fair, and she should get a chance to read them too. I won't say these were easy stories. The endings in particular presented challenges, and I wasn't confident I was getting everything that was there to be found. But I didn't care, ultimately, because there was so much packed in to each story, the stories were interesting as all hell, and the characters were so entirely themselves. I will definitely read this again, and if I were to teach again, I would find a story from this collection to share with the students -- probably Mr. Hope, just because it's in some ways the most relatable, but also because it broke my heart, like a good story should.

20 short stories and 20 creative non-fiction exercises, with three drafts total for each assignment, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Nov. 28, delivered to English Dept for pick-up on Dec. 6
Some generalizations about marking. One: it's time-consuming to comment in detail, and I wonder whether students will use what I've suggested (or even read the comments). Two: nobody can punctuate anymore. That's a huge generalization, but I base it on the fact that only one student of twenty handed in a clean draft, free of punctuation (and other grammatical) errors; and these kids are smart. So something's gone wrong. (Yes, that's a sentence fragment. I'm doing it for effect.) Three: it's bloody hard to write a short story. Takes years of practice, let's face it. I hope my students will feel encouraged to keep practicing.

November

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
* a gift from a friend
Essays by the really wonderful novelist, whose description of her years as a freelancer shamed me with her work ethic and non-snobbery about writing regularly for a wedding magazine (among other, much more prestigious magazines). I loved this book. Not all of the essays were equally great, but there were brilliant ones among them, and much advice I've felt compelled to share with others. I read parts out loud to my class from the essay on writing (and being/becoming a writer), including the section on Grace Paley, which had them agape and impressed. It felt like a book where I would be reading something and would think of someone specific with whom I wanted to share what Patchett was saying. Highly recommended, it pretty much goes without saying. (Side note: I thought I was having a slow reading month, and just realize, looking back, that I've read quite a lot this month without even noticing. I'm glad for that.)

19 magazine assignments, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Nov. 21, returned to students on Nov. 28 (one student did not complete the assignment, so I'm still waiting to mark that one)
The assignment was to find a current Canadian literary magazine, and review three pages of it. Many students really looked around to find a magazine they liked. Some critiqued the literary magazines for being too dense and intellectual (Brick was called out by two students for this). One student brought in a fascinating essay from Canadian Notes and Queries (I think, if memory serves) on how readers don't fit into schools, or into the education model of reading. My reader-kids could totally relate to the examples cited.

The Wreckage, by Kerry-Lee Powell
* bought from Words Worth at the Wild Writers Fest after hearing Kerry-Lee read
Poems. A slim chapbook based on the author's father's life and death. Bloody brilliant poems. I read this collection several times over yesterday evening, and was brought to tears, spine-tingling shivers, and even in one poem to a child-like terror. This woman is a such a good poet. These poems have the rawness of real emotion combined with structural rigour. I'm blown away. Can't wait to share it with my poetry book club. (Update: we're going to read it for our next poetry book club! And Kerry-Lee just announced a two-book deal with Harper Collins Canada, so when she goes big, you can say you heard it here first!)

The First Four Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* Fooey borrowed it from her elementary school library
Short, and sad. We were so worried about Laura. She doesn't seem happy. Almanzo (he's called Manly in the book, but the kids hated the name and insisted I call him Almanzo) likes having nice things and spending money. He gets them deeply in debt. It made us appreciate Pa and Ma's frugal nature. Pa might not have been a successful farmer, but he knew better than to splurge on things the family couldn't afford. Even while he and Laura are deeply in debt, Almanzo comes home with an expensive clock (that gets burned up in a terrible fire at the end of the book). Their baby boy dies mysteriously. Their house burns down. Almanzo keeps betting on the farming, and losing. Laura keeps repeating the saying, "It all evens out in the end. The rich have their ice in the summer, but the poor get theirs in the winter." "I hate that saying," said AppleApple, and I knew just what she meant. Now ... what will we read next?

19 query letters, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Nov. 14, returned to students on Nov. 21 (one student did not complete the assignment, so I'm still waiting to mark that one)
Some very fun inventions here. I enjoyed reading what my students imagined they might write someday. It was a bit of work tracking down the agents they'd cited, and some had been more successful than others in finding potential agents who might be interested in their work.

Malarky, by Anakana Schofield
* purchased at Words Worth Books (had to special order it, which seemed silly, as it's won prizes!)
I've met AK via email, and conversed with her quite a lot, and really really like and admire her. She's funny, she ballsy, she works hard. So I'll admit to being a little bit afraid of reading her book just in case I didn't like it as much as I like her (maybe this is how friends feel about my books). But I really liked Malarky, and would recommend it highly. The book is not without its challenges, as the narrative is not straight-forward and chronological, but the voice of Our Woman is very compelling. I found the book very funny to begin with, and Our Woman, too. As her losses become apparent, her outline becomes fuzzier, and she loses some of the humour. At times, I found myself wishing she were the funny self-deprecating character I'd first met, but this is a book about grief, and it brings the reader inside the grieving process (if you want to call it a process, rather than a disorienting experience that isn't as predictable as "process" makes it sound). I wanted Our Woman to be funny, again (but grief can rob us of funny, at least for awhile). I wanted her to make more sense (but grief is disorienting). I wanted her not to seem so needy, to forgive herself, to reach out to her friends (but grief is isolating). So the book itself is all of these things, as it needs to be, to be what it is. One more thing: AK writes a good sex scene. And they're funny too.

These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* purchased at Words Worth Books for my eight-year-old daughter's birthday present
We've finished the series! (Well, we're embarking on The First Four Years, now, but are keeping in mind that Laura did not prepare it for publication, and it remains in draft form, different in tone from the rest of the series.) I've loved and read this last book in the series repeatedly, especially during my teen years, but even into my early 20s. I've now read it twice to my children, out loud, in my 30s, and this time around I was overcome by emotion. I could hardly read the scene at the end where Laura leaves her home to go and live with Almanzo, after they've just wed. "Don't cry, Mommy, or I'll cry too!" CJ (age 5) told me, but I couldn't help it; I was this close to sobs. "I miss little Laura," said AppleApple (age 10), as we all thought about how quickly our beloved character had grown up. Yes, exactly. I was unable, this time around, to lose myself in the romantic side of the story, though that clearly enchanted Fooey (age 8); Laura is so young, married at 18, and what were her choices? The hurried wedding is described very differently at the beginning of The First Four Years, striking since we'd just read the same scene a few days before: in the unrevised version, Laura worries about marrying a farmer, about the hard labour of being a farmer's wife, and about poverty, and Almanzo promises to give it three years, and then do something else if it doesn't work out. That conversation is left out of These Happy Golden Years. I think a lot was left out, and purposely. She wasn't writing about herself, exactly, but about a character, and life is not like fiction. It's fiction that's kept this series an enduring classic. I understand, too, why she wanted it to end with this book.

In the Field, by Claire Tacon
* purchased from Amazon.ca
I read this debut novel (published in 2010) in preparation for moderating a panel at the Wild Writers Festival this month. I'll admit that I had a hard time getting into the book, and nearly gave up after several attempts, but it was worth persevering in the end. The editor should be taken to task, as this is a good book essentially rail-roaded by its first fifty pages; every book needs a set-up, of course, but the opening felt artificial (and tedious) in comparison to many of the vivid emotionally real-feeling scenes that come later on. Claire is an articulate and thoughtful writer, and I look forward to her second book.

October

Traplines, by Eden Robinson
* this is my second copy, snapped up at Words Worth Books when I saw it on the sale table (I gave my first copy away)
This is the kind of book that calls out to be shared: and it's made up of just four short stories, set in Northern B.C. and Vancouver, on reserves and off. The first story "Traplines" is a punch to the gut of brutal emotion. Just read it. The second story is completely chilling. The last has an ending that disappointed me, because it used a bait-and-switch tactic that seemed to cheapen what she was doing overall. The book was published in 1996 (!!), but holds up over time. I haven't read Eden Robinson's subsequent novels, I must confess, in part because reviews mentioned their graphic violence, which is certainly present here too; maybe also because she's published novels, not more short stories (maybe I feel like I can stomach violence in small doses). Be warned, but don't let the violence get in your way: this book should be read as a Canadian classic. I've been enjoying re-reading favourites from my shelf to share with my creative writing class.

20 poems plus drafts, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Oct. 16, returned to students on Oct 23 after a marathon marking night at my on-campus office (I don't procrastinate)
I erred on the side of generous in my marking, but wanted to recognize effort and engagement, along with skill and effect. Some very strong work was handed in, and I was very pleased by the students' use of drafts. I used a very basic rubric to mark the work, with quite broad categories for comment (grammar, syntax, style; content and creativity; structure and organization; and use of drafts). It's creative writing, so while I want to recognize those who show particular skill or spark, I also want to give everyone a chance to succeed -- by showing improvement from draft to draft, or by showing the willingness to experiment, to use critique, to engage with the material. If I saw that, I marked high. We'll see how the next round goes.

"the making of a story": A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante
* purchased at Words Worth Books on advice from a friend
An excellent resource, which I've been digging into regularly as I teach creative writing this term. Include stories and essays by established authors, along with LaPlante's thorough and thoughtful and in-depth discussion of various subjects related to creative writing, plus some writing exercises (these are fairly complicated, I find, and not as useful for shorter in-class exercises). Highly recommended.

Canary, by Nancy Jo Cullen
* page proofs; I purchased a finished copy from Words Worth's book table at the Wild Writers Festival after reading the book
Read in preparation for leading a panel at the Wild Writers Festival in November. Intriguing stories, each one involving a gay or lesbian character (or characters). I haven't read a book like this before, where it's not strictly gay fiction or straight fiction, but about the intersections between gay and straight characters. There were some terrific stories in here, too, memorable characters, and an appealing embracing tone, that somehow managed to be both warm and sardonic.

Keeping the Peace, by Collette Maitland
* purchased from Amazon; shame, Carrie, shame!
Read in preparation for leading a panel at the Wild Writers Festival in November. Quiet stories with a strong sense of place, which I recognized almost immediately: Gananoque, which is near Kingston, Ontario, and also near where my husband's family lives.

September

How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
* purchased from Amazon; I can hardly admit this out lout, but it's sadly true
This is a terrific book! Read it, everyone. I'm reading it in preparation for leading a panel at the Wild Writers Festival in November, and I was lucky enough to start it the day before the Giller longlist came out, which made me feel ahead of the curve. It's just a damn good book, so get it and read it, and you'll be able to say, years from now, that you knew right from the start that de Mariaffi was a talent to be reckoned with.

The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2013, edited by Suzanne Buffam
* purchased at Words Worth Books, read for poetry book club
I only half-read this book. There were a few good poems, but nothing I would keep with me forever. Maybe that's setting the standard too high, but I want a poem I can keep forever when I read a new collection of poetry.

In the Palm of Your Hand: the Poet's Portable Workshop, by Steve Kowit
* purchased at Words Worth Books on recommendation from a friend who teaches creative writing
What a fabulous resource! I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is teaching poetry as part of a creative writing class. It's a very practical guide to writing poems by yourself, or in a group setting. I'm using it as a resource to plan my creative writing classes on poetry, but I think some of the advice, observations, and exercises would apply in a more general sense to any form of writing.

Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* purchased at Words Worth Books as a birthday gift for my 8-year-old daughter
Every time I read this series, it changes; or more precisely, my perspective changes, and I experience it differently. I remember when town seemed so big, when the social events described seemed so thrilling, and this time around the smallness of the town and the social life gave me a sense of claustrophobia. Laura is only 15 when Almanzo expresses interest in her. The kids LOVED the romantic element, even   CJ, who is only five. I appreciated the thrill, too; but felt more like Laura's parents when she tells them that Almanzo Wilder wants to take her sleighriding behind his beautiful horses: sober. How many options does she have? The lack of choice dims the romance for me. But I can tell my kids are not in the least troubled by it. We started the next book the same night we finished this one, and it's always been my favourite: These Happy Golden Years. I wonder whether I will take the same pleasure in it, reading it now.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris
* purchased as an ebook specially for cottage, read on my Kobo
I started this one at the cottage and only finished it now, a good two weeks post-cottage. My concussion is my excuse. I can't focus on text for long stretches, which is cutting down on my reading time. My mom has gotten me another David Sedaris book on tape, because I really loved this one. I'm trying to figure out why it worked so well, and essentially, it's just very very entertaining. I kept reading bits out to Kevin. The essays aren't linked thematically, except that they're (mainly) personal pieces structured around episodes in the author's life. (Is this something I could do? I'm not doing any writing right now, due to the head injury, but my next project may be creative non-fiction along these lines.) I'd like to lend the book to Kevin, but he hates reading on the Kobo. I, sadly, seem to like it, even though that feels wrong, like I'm betraying my favourite independent booksellers.

August

The Cuckoo's Calling, by JK Rowling
* purchased as an ebook specially for cottage, read on my Kobo
I read this as all books really ought to be read: in one feverish gulp, setting aside all other worldly cares, as one can only do at the cottage. Because I was reading it as an ebook, I had no sense of its length, but suspect it must be pretty thick. I stayed up til 2am finishing it and I'm a fast reader! Rowling's skills are perfectly suited to the mystery genre (which is a form I love), and her sensibility is not as dark as some mystery authors (the ones I don't like nearly so much). She's created a great detective team, and I'm looking forward to being thoroughly entertained by the next instalment (if she so chooses). The woman knows plot and pacing, and even when I knew we were chasing down red herrings, I was happily entertained by her storytelling.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
a birthday gift from my daughter AppleApple, bought at Words Worth, on my advice
* I started this back in May, and read it much like I read Wolf Hall: slooowly. Finally finished it at the cottage. But it's the kind of book I don't find difficult to dip into and out of; nor am I always in the mood for it. But it waits patiently till I am. I found myself wanting confirmation that the history was accurate, because it's so brilliantly imagined. Thomas Cromwell changed in subtle ways in this book: there was a rumour, scarcely mentioned, that he'd had an innkeeper killed so he could steal his wife, a woman he liked, and that he'd put her up in a house in the city, for example. The way Mantel has constructed the story, we're in Cromwell's head, yet he doesn't share everything. His power is waning, slim, and he knows it. He's more anxious, less certain, more willing to shape-shift to please, but his options are running out. The King is depicted as impulsive, self-deluding, childish, impossible to control -- even for Cromwell. I miss Cromwell the husband and father of the first book, and rather dread the inevitable end of the next book: the last in Mantel's planned series. After that, I want her to write a novel about how Elizabeth manages to come to power. It can't have been easy. She must have been a skillful politician, and I want to see it.

Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin
purchased as an ebook, read on my Kobo
* Story collection from a fellow Anansi author who was short-listed for the Giller prize last year for her novel, Inside (both books came out at the same time, which seemed a bit odd). I was really riveted by the stories, which almost all had a surprising plot twist or unexpected turn. I found myself reading expectantly, wondering what Ohlin had up her sleeve this time: she has an inventive imagination for plot. But the characters themselves felt oddly the same, story after story. Ohlin carefully created interesting and thorough back-stories for each character (and there are a lot of stories; they're quite short), yet despite their differences there was something about her authorial voice that gave an evenness to the characters. All were likeable, but bland or removed or distanced from their emotions in a way that protected them from real harm. They were all weirdly untouchable, which kept them apart from the reader. Except maybe in my favourite story (sorry, the title isn't handy), placed toward the end of the collection, in which a father visits his teenaged daughter who is in a coma due to a car accident. That story moved me to tears, perhaps because the father's untouchableness was so heart-breaking. I think my issue with many of the other stories was that I was entertained and interested, but not moved. It didn't help that many of the endings simply dropped off a cliff. I like an ending that turns back on itself instead. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and recommend it to short story fans.

The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
from our shelves
* A classic survival story that grows more difficult to read the older I get. This book held everyone's attention. We've found ourselves referring to it often, when we're hungry or bored, thinking of how much worse it was this family. We also recognized that it was technology that failed them. The family was unprepared purely because they expected the trains to keep running all winter. This winter was only a few winters removed from the complete self-sufficiency of Little House on the Prairie, yet reliance on new technology, on connections, on "town" and stores, came easy for everyone -- and very nearly killed them. It also depicts a switch to a cash-culture, which puts a different kind of pressure on Pa to provide. It's distressing to observe how money disadvantages people, especially those with different non-cash-related skills -- like the amazing ingenuity for survival that Pa and Ma possess. I marvel at her button lamp and his hay sticks; and also at their refusal to give up hope.

Is Everything Meeting Up Without Me? (And other concerns), by Mindy Kaling
purchased as an ebook, read on my Kobo
* Okay, it's slim and silly, but I love Mindy Kaling's sense of humour. An excellent light summer's read. Can't wait for The Mindy Project to start up again this fall (I hope, I hope! What if it's been cancelled?). I watch next to no TV, but I love this show.

July

Hana's Suitcase, by Karen Levine
borrowed from the library
* Recommended by my 10-year-old, who got it out from the library, thinking she might read it to her younger siblings while babysitting them this summer. But she decided it was too sad and that they weren't quite ready for the story of the Holocaust, yet. She thought I would like it. I did. I highly recommend it, and think perhaps my 8-year-old would like it too. I wept most of the way through, though, so I'm not sure it would work as a read-aloud story.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
purchased as an ebook, read on my Kobo
* Loved this memoir. Couldn't put it down. Felt nourished by it. No small feat, as my expectations are high. Wrote more about it in this blog post.

Nineteen unpublished stories by emerging Canadian writers
sent to me by editors at The New Quarterly literary magazine
* I was a judge for a story contest. Reading these stories reminds me to be thankful for everyone who saw potential in my early efforts. Reminds me that good stories can be flawed, but they have to come from somewhere true and open. Reminds me that the best stories are the ones that have something to say, and I don't mean something didactic, I mean something essential. This is almost impossible to quantify, by the way, but you know it when you read it.

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens
borrowed from the library
* Yup, another memoir on death. Why am I drawn to this subject right now? I have no explanation. A slim volume, compact essays originally published in Vanity Fair, written by the famously controversial writer who was dying of cancer, or "living dyingly," as he called it. I was struck by the suddenness of the end, how he didn't know until he died that he would, which is actually what Barnes wrote about a fair bit: how the mind can't comprehend its own non-existence. I liked this collection far more than Barnes' work, maybe because Hitchens's experience was so immediate, his suffering was present, there was nothing theoretical about his struggles. He seemed so alive in his writing, too. That in itself was moving. It felt like there were no barriers, no tricks.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes
borrowed from the library
* A memoir on death. Can't believe I actually perservered and waded through this one. Not sure what I got out of it, but it did make me feel like I don't brood on death nearly as much as Mr. Barnes does. I found his reflections on the writing life more interesting than those on death, which, for all his thinking on the subject, he never seemed really to be able to grasp and wrestle with. The idea of immortality, or living through one's words and work, was interesting to me -- mainly because it seems so presumptuous.

By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder
from our shelves
* Finished it! Almost didn't think we'd get through this one, as we've been at it, off and on, for months. We were bogged down by the heavy descriptive passages early on (perhaps inspired by Mary's blindness and Laura's care to convey detail to her), and there are some difficult sections for my youngest listeners: murder, Pa almost getting lynched on payday, Ma and Laura feeding and housing a stream of uncouth men come to settle and work in the wild West. There's a lawlessness to this life, and danger that makes Pa seem rather selfish for moving them around like he does. The action moves from place to place and never settles, so the family seems quite uprooted. But boy was CJ excited when Mr. Edwards turned up to thump someone over the head and save Pa in one scene. We all have happy memories of the Christmas in the Little House on the Prairie. Interestingly, my kids no longer trust Pa when he promises that this new home (a tiny claim shanty built haphazardly in one day) will bring the family fortune, at last -- it's how the book ends, and none of my listeners believed him. I wonder if Pa's own family did?

June

A Pocketful of Rye, Agatha Christie
plucked of my bro and sis-in-law's shelves, at their farm
* Holiday reading happiness. Definitely read before, but couldn't recall the ending. Reading it has inspired me: I want to polish Girl Runner into something akin to pure entertainment and reading pleasure. I'm a literary writer by instinct, but plot's nothing to sneeze at.

Noted: this month I am dipping into and not finishing a number of books. Not sure why. Here's what I've been reading, yet not finishing:
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes

The Book of My Lives, Alexsander Hemon
bought at Words Worth after reading excellent review, plus it was recommended by a blog friend
* Memoir. Intensely interesting essays on the lead-up to war, being an immigrant, being duped, playing soccer and chess, and so much more, and everything I'm writing down sounds reductive, because each essay is a great deal more than its subject-matter. Hemon is entertaining, often very funny, and yet he's creating these structures that are solid, that feel lasting, like I could return to them over and over, that invite questioning. Big questions. What separates us? What binds us? What is identity? He looks deeply into love. He doesn't let himself off the moral hook, ever. That he's writing in a language he learned as an adult amazes me, but I suspect it also adds richness to his tone, that we're hearing those layers of language and culture and experience subconsciously. Read this book!

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts of Faith, Anne Lamott
chosen almost at random while browsing memoirs at the library
* Awhile back now, Lamott's lovely essay on the importance of practicing art was floating around the internet, so I had hopes for this memoir. It started fine, describing an odd childhood, obligatory for the memoir-genre, but later essays were incomplete and sloppily-written; they would have made decent blog posts. Her story of being an alcoholic for many years was fascinating, but she never made clear how she survived, and I found myself distrusting her claims of stability in the years after that. She came across as deeply needy, obsessing over decisions that seemed, to me, quite minor, like a high-maintenance friend. I strongly disliked the sense that she wanted to give me advice; I needed and hoped for something more universal, for depth of observation rather than mere confession. The book was published in 1999, a lifetime ago, really, so I'm sure Lamott has grown and changed. She certainly chose wonderful poems (not by her) to preface different sections.

May

Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan
from our shelves
* A short-ish chapter book that I remember reading as a child. Quietly compelling. Youngest (age 5) had trouble keeping track of who Sarah was. Maybe because the idea of someone coming to replace a dead mother was too difficult? We are having trouble finishing chapter books these days, so went with this very short one. This month we started but did not finish The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, but the structure proved too complex for my 5 and 7 year-old. The names kept changing (sometimes the grandmother was called grandmother, sometimes by her actual name), there were too many characters, and the language and sentence structure were too sophisticated -- made me appreciate the simplicity of the Little House series, which may be why it works so well for reading aloud, even to young children. (Note: my 10-year-old loved Louise Erdrich's Birchbark series.)

My Life Among the Apes, Cary Fagan
bought at Bryan Prince Bookseller after reading with the author at GritLit in Hamilton
* Stories, long-listed for the Giller. I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. The stories are quiet, the telling plain and unadorned, and never frenetic or showy or rough or troubling. I appreciated them, and admired their clean structure and tone, but having come a small distance away from the book, I now wonder whether their tidyness makes them almost slightly forgettable. Like I need an edge to cut me a little bit. That said, I would recommend this book.

Roost, Ali Bryan
bought at WordsWorth Books, on recommendation from Pickle Me This who had quite a different take than I did, so read her review too
* A Canadian comedy. Though I LOLed on two occasions, and got teary on another, it wasn't enough for me. I'm hard on books, let's be honest. I write them myself--it makes me a tough critic. This is one of those dreaded plotless books beginners are always being told not to write (or not to publish anyway, since writing them is inevitable and probably the only way to learn how not to). Writing a cynical, sarcastic mom is a tough task, and the main character is difficult to like. The scenes of domestic chaos are realistic, but that didn't make them funny--it made them too close to my own reality, while failing to illuminate in any special or interesting way. When I compare this book to the really funny Financial Lives of the Poets I read earlier this year, it's not a fair game. One is shallow and incomplete, the other structurally sophisticated and timely. I probably really didn't like Roost because it reminded me of the failings of my own "Canadian comedy," a manuscript I keep adding to and subtracting from, but know will never be good enough to publish. Oh how I wish I could write comedy like Jess Walter. I'll keep trying. Maybe Ali Bryan should keep trying, too. The good stuff takes practice.

April

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
borrowed from the library; later bought from Words Worth Books
* Good book. Really good. Highly recommend. Haven't read Barnes since Flaubert's Parrot, and I'd forgotten how excellent he is with form, how creative yet lucid. It's amazing what he leaves out. More amazing how he brings the reader around to what feels like a full understanding of character. The ease of the structure blew my mind. It doesn't fit into a novel-writing rubric. I've said nothing about what the book's about, but it doesn't actually matter -- content is British, almost conventional, a surprise ending. But it's the telling that makes the book terrific.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
husband bought at WordsWorth Books after being mistaken for the author at a party at a writers' festival last fall 
* I loved this book. Couldn't put it down. Short stories, loosely linked, totally not advertised as such. I loved the Spanish slang, the pacing, the universal sadness, how the characters move between the country of their birth and the country that is now home. The writing can be profane and explicit, and the main characters are young men who cheat compulsively, none of which would seem to make it a book I'd relate to, but there it is. This is a good writer. I didn't feel like he was trying, stylistically, to be anything but himself.

Seal up the Thunder, Erin Noteboom
bought at WordsWorth Books for poetry book club
* Must read it again before book club meets on Friday, but these poems moved me deeply, stirred me deeply. Loosely based on Biblical texts, with a focus on God as creator and destroyer, it made me consider the human desires to create and to destroy. I wonder whether some young men are drawn to murder because they lack the power to create, whereas women's bodies have the capacity to bear life. That's probably a simplistic analysis, but it has some power. God, therefore, must be male and female. I loved the poem where she named God "Endless." The poems measure human life against eternity. They grab at some deep ache inside of me that knows how temporary this existence is.

On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder
copy from our shelves
* One of my favourites in the series. So much drama and tension, and there's real craft in the storytelling: the grasshoppers, the debt. I've decided the parents are both idealized figures, but nevertheless I admire Ma's calm and strength despite and amidst disaster and blizzards and Pa's restlessness. The story does not match up accurately with Wilder's real life: during the time period described, a baby brother was born and lived for nine months, but his birth, life, and death would have complicated the story in ways that Wilder must have decided did not fit with the tone. Instead, she offers the heart-wrenching story of Laura's doll being taken from her by a selfish neighbour child, and Laura finding it weeks later frozen in a puddle, bringing the doll home, Ma's apology and her help in restoring the doll. I still recall the power of that loss as I experienced it as a child, and as an adult, I recognize Ma's regret at minimizing the importance of the doll to Laura. A small incident, but deeply affecting.

A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg
copy borrowed from library, recommended by web content manager at House of Anansi
* Might have to buy a copy now: recipes combined with memoir, by a well-known food blogger. The memoir is entertaining (although the writer seems awfully young, which she is!), but I'd buy it for the recipes. I made her "custard-filled cornbread" for supper last night and EVERYONE loved it.

Reconceiving Midwifery, Ivy-Lynn Bourgeault, Cecilia Benoit, Robbie Davis-Floyd
copy borrowed from library, recommended by friend who is a midwife
* read all essays specific to Ontario midwifery. It put into perspective the changes that have happened since legislation and regulation (1994), and gave me a better understanding of the origins of midwifery as a political/feminist movement. Good info as I prepare for the interview process at McMaster, although dated now, as the book was published in 2004. Also: makes me wonder how the pre-legislation midwives feel about the changes that have come about?

March

Mimi Power and the I-don't-know-what, Victoria Miles
copy sent by the author, who found me through my blog
* I warned the author that I don't review books on my blog, but she thought my family might like her gentle, warm, and funny offering, and she was absolutely right. Both of my eldest kids read it (girl, age 10; boy, age 11), and I read it, and I've now passed it onto to the 7-year-old who is reading everything she can get her hands on right now. The book is illustrated, the chapters are short, and the characters are genuine. The plot is simple, but not simplistic, and it's a pleasing and truly funny glimpse of family life, from the perspective of a 9-year-old girl. Highly recommended.

Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
re-read in preparation for poetry book club
* The poems had more depth and meaning on second reading; I should always read books of poems more than once. There was still no knock-out poem in the book, for me, but there were moments of poignance and beauty and care. Still, I think Collins may be in a position where he can publish anything without anybody suggesting he wait a bit and let things percolate, and that's a dangerous position for a writer (although wouldn't we writers all love to be in a such a position!).

The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King
purchased and read on my Kobo, but again I regret not having a hard copy to pass along; if I keep buying all my Kobo reads in book form this could get very expensive!
* I loved this book and had to keep talking about it to my husband as I was reading it; I felt so damn uneducated on the subject of First Nations/Indians in North America, from history to present day, but after reading Little House on the Praire was desperate for a different viewpoint, and all I can say is: I'm sorry! I'm sorry for not knowing, for making assumptions and being ignorant of history, and I'm sorry that the white-European culture of which I am most definitely a part never tried to learn from the people who were living here first, and simply assumed we'd arrived in order to improve and educate (and possibly to eradicate, given our actions) -- and that we still make the assumption; Tom King's gentle and funny tone is just perfect, somehow, he entertains even as he makes his point, and his point is: Stop asking what Indian people want and ask instead, What do White people want? Because that is the history of White/Indian relations. White people want land, always have, always will -- and it's true, isn't it? We're still finding reasons to take land and use it to make money, whether we're building pipelines or decimating forests.

Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
copy from our own shelves, bought at a used bookstore about a decade ago
* read to the little kids, as I'd read to the bigger ones a few years back; Pa remains an inscrutable and unpredictable character, and I suspect him of not being a wise decision-maker; the older kids listened in often, and were horrified by the blatant racism toward the Indians, even by the most sympathetic character (Pa); we really could hardly stand to read it, and I felt compelled to keep mentioning that this was a raw and real lesson in the kind of prejudice Indians had faced, and this is part of our history, too, but it almost ruined the book for us; I've found the perfect antidote and will be reading Tom King's The Inconvenient Indian next, and reporting tidbits to the kids; CJ was terribly upset about the family having to leave the cow and calf behind, never to be seen again; it's gut-wrenching for my settled children to imagine leaving their home and possessions behind in an instant, but Laura sees it as an adventure

The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father, Jim Wight
copy has sat unread on our shelves for 12 years since I picked it up as assistant books editor at the National Post (we did not choose to review it)
* father did not pass onto to son his writing talents, and son had some personal axes to grind, but I perservered, curious to know how this remarkable writing career came to be; interesting that the real James Herriot (his name was Alf Wight) struggled to make ends meet as a vet, but became wealthy as an author, which is not a trajectory I could imagine for myself; he worked hard at writing, that seemed obvious, and he didn't like being famous, not at all

February

Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
purchased at Words Worth for poetry book club
* kept waiting for that knock-out poem to appear; many poems started promisingly, then veered into what seemed asides rather than epiphanies; felt almost too loose, too casual, and maybe not funny enough to compensate; will have to read again before book club meets to discuss in March

The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo
purchased at Words Worth using coupon sent home from the kids' school: the book is their One Book One School choice this year; read not to kids, but to myself, in preparation for leading a workshop at the school on characterization
* DiCamillo's "dear reader" tic really grated on me; I appreciated the neatly formed plot, but the very short chapters felt disjointed; did not see this as an award-winner

Drop Dead Healthy: One man's humble quest for bodily perfection, A.J. Jacobs
read on Kobo, purchased spontaneously due to direct marketing in my inbox (Kobo marketers, pat yourselves on the back), on sale; but now I wish I had a hard copy so I could lend it to friends
* gentle humour rather than laugh out loud, but very entertaining narrator/narrative, full of interesting health-related tidbits, though I skipped the long list of tips at the back; easy-feeling writing that makes me want to write non-fiction too

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
copy from our shelves, bedtime reading for children
* early chapters much stronger than later chapters, but this character is timeless (hard to believe the book was written more than 60 years ago!)

The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter
library copy, looked up after reading Beautiful Ruins
* laugh out loud funny, kept trying to read lines to husband; then it ended up being all moving and I'm surreptitiously wiping away tears while finishing the book on deck at a swim meet; husband now reading too, and hugely enjoying

January

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
bought at Words Worth after reading with him at Winnipeg Writers Fest; now wish I'd bought copy while in Winnipeg so I could have gotten him to sign it. Sadly I did not know I was in the company of genius at the time. How had I never heard of this writer??
* excellent, highly recommended, much-enjoyed by my husband too

Swimming Lessons, by Leanne Shapton
read on Kobo--my first book on Kobo!--then bought hard copy at Words Worth, recommended by Pickle Me This
* I keep recommending this book to random parents I sit beside at swim meets; my 10-year-old swim kid is reading it too

Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod
bought at Wild Writers Fest after hearing him speak on book panel; why didn't I get him to sign it?
* absolutely loved this collection; secretly want him to write a whole novel based on the fabulous, weirdly sexy, completely real-feeling story "Wonder About Parents"

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
borrowed copy from friend who recommended it
* suspiciously black-and-white reporting, irritating men's mag tone, but interesting and hard to put down, and we are now eating chia seeds for breakfast

The Book of Marvels, Lorna Crozier
bought copy at Words Worth for poetry book club

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris ..., Leanne Shapton
library copy, looked up her other books after reading Swimming Studies
* too much like flipping through a magazine, gorging on pictures; I guess I just crave text